- Associated Press - Monday, August 1, 2016

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - Criminal investigators in New Jersey will be able to satisfy a lower standard to gain access to individual telephone records under a ruling issued Monday by a divided state Supreme Court.

The court wrote police can get a court order for the records if they convince a judge the records are relevant to an investigation.

The ruling, involving a Monmouth County drug case from 2014, was criticized by two dissenting justices as throwing out accepted higher standards stemming from a 1982 decision that required a search warrant backed by a showing of probable cause.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said telephone records should be treated similar to bank and credit card records, which potentially reveal more intimate personal details yet only require investigators to obtain a grand jury subpoena.

“Because telephone billing records reveal details of one’s private affairs that are similar to what bank and credit card records disclose, we conclude that both areas of information should receive the same level of constitutional protection and be available if they are relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation,” Rabner wrote.

Rabner and the three concurring justices added the requirement that a judge review any application for phone records “strikes an appropriate balance between legitimate privacy rights of individuals and society’s valid interest in investigating and preventing crime.”

In a statement, Acting Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino called the ruling “an important win for law enforcement and public safety across New Jersey” and said it “revises long-standing precedent in this state, and brings New Jersey more in line with federal law and the vast majority of state jurisdictions.”

In a dissent joined by one other justice, Justice Jaynee LaVecchia noted that the fact New Jersey’s privacy protections are more far-reaching than the federal government’s and most states’ shouldn’t be reason to lessen them.

“So fixated on aligning our state jurisprudence with the federal standard, we fear the State, and now the majority, has sacrificed our law for the sake of that uniformity,” she wrote. “We are unpersuaded that any legitimate basis for overturning our precedent - for that is what is happening here no matter how the analysis is dressed up - is present here.”

Frank Corrado, an attorney who argued on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union New Jersey, called the ruling a mixed bag.

“The good news is they are requiring some judicial supervision based on a specific showing by the state that the records sought are relevant,” he said. “The bad news is there is no warrant required, and we feel that does not do enough for New Jerseyans’ constitutional rights.”

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